The Catholic Writer in Exile
How shall we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?
How indeed. The Babylonian captors of the Chosen People, Pope Emeritus Benedict once observed, did not ask their captives for a set of folk tunes or entertainments. They wanted to hear the sacred songs of the Israelites, songs which for these exiles could not be sung just anywhere, but only within “the context of the liturgy and in the freedom of a people.” The situation of the Catholic writer today is much different. He lives in a kind of exile among people who not only care little about his sacred songs, but also have no taste for his non-sacred entertainments.
And yet, the Catholic writer still wants to change the world, wants to contribute beauty to the New Evangelization with novels and short stories, movies and TV shows, plays and musicals. The task is formidable. For what the Catholic writer most needs to produce are stories with what Walker Percy calls “religious” depth. A story is religious, Percy explains, when the writer takes up the question of religion in its root sense, “as signifying a radical bond,” and either discovers a transcendent demand which connects human beings to reality and so confers meaning to life, or fails to identify such a bond and so acknowledges an absence of meaning. For either kind of religious storyteller, whether meaning-affirming as in the case of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, or Flannery O’Connor, or meaning-denying as in the case of Sartre, there is conflict between the storyteller and our ambient democratic-technological-consumerist complex. For such religious stories only work when the audience is open to considering the possibility of a bond that transcends party politics, technological innovation, and consumption. But the culture is losing its appetite for such questions. It would much rather binge Netflix.
Pitfalls of Polarization
Speaking of Netflix, America Magazine ran a story last fall entitled “Netflix is Having a Catholic Moment.” The evidence for this claim, a string of new shows with Catholic themes, looks impressive. Yet closer inspection reveals that Netflix’s interest with these shows is not at all religious in Percy’s sense. Whatever merit these shows may have, it is not the merit of a search for a radical bond between human beings and reality. Their concern is limited to the more social and political, not to say sensational, aspects of the Church’s life.
So how does the Catholic writer tell a religious story to a secular world? This is the $10,000 question, and possibly the 800 million dollar question if the story can be told in the form of a blockbuster movie. Interestingly, the biblical epic has been one of Hollywood’s go-to genres since the very beginning of its history. Yet we no longer live in the culture to which Cecil B. DeMille offered The Ten Commandments. We live in an era of ever-increasing polarization, identity politics, and widespread distrust of institutions, both civic and religious. A biblical epic or saint movie today must therefore struggle not to be perceived as a political statement, as one more shot fired in the culture war. So too with other kinds of stories produced by Catholics and other Christians. Making things more difficult is that the market forces that mobilize whenever Christian stories turn a profit end up reducing Christian audiences to marketing demographics. Thus are born the “faith-based movie industry,” the “Christian music industry,” the “Christian book market,” and so on.
The temptation in all this for the Catholic writer is that of playing up to these marketing demographics. For he might start out with wanting to tell a story that shows the world the beauty of the faith, but end up with his work shelved beneath the stacks of Amish romance novels in Barnes & Noble.
It will be objected: Christian books and movies have a proven impact. Christian communities are able to enjoy clean and edifying entertainment and even, sometimes, hearts are changed. Don’t forget the murderer in Texas who turned himself in after seeing The Passion of the Christ (true story).
None of this can be denied. Still, too much contemporary Christian filmmaking and fiction is of dubious aesthetic merit, and its often hamfisted storytelling cannot be justified by the good consequences it produces. The Gothic cathedral is not a mere means to the practice of the faith by those who make use of it. It is itself an expression of that faith, and thus has its own integrity as a work of sacred architecture that demands respect. When art, fine art, becomes a mere instrument to even so laudable a goal as evangelization, something of integral importance to the Good News is lost.
Returning to the Old Neighborhood
So the question persists: how does the Catholic writer sing a religious song in such a strange land?
First and foremost, by building relationships with the strangers.
The Catholic writer, no less than any other artist, works within the confines of a practice. An artistic practice, to paraphrase Alasdair MacIntyre, is a cooperative activity in which the artist apprentices himself to the masters and traditions of his craft, thereby learning what artistic excellence requires and how to achieve it habitually in his work. The mentors one needs to apprentice oneself to are not always among the living, nor are they always among the Catholic faithful. To achieve excellence as an epic poet, Dante needed to learn from the pagan Virgil, just as Flannery O’Connor, as she relates in her essays and letters, needed to learn from the novels of Henry James and the stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners. The Catholic writer must be ready to acknowledge as masters those not just outside the faith, but even those who might have an animus against it. Sometime in the 8th century the poet-monk Alcuin complained to the Bishop of Lindisfarne about the Lindisfarne monks’ enjoyment of Nordic myths during dinner in the refectory. Quid Hinieldus cum Christo? Alcuin asked. What does Ingeld, a hero of pagan songs and poems, have to do with Christ? Aside from the problem of what monks should listen to at dinner, the general answer to Alcuin’s question, as J.R.R. Tolkien argued, is, in effect: Ingeld has something quite interesting to do with Christ. The moral for the Catholic writer is that the resources of his practice are to be found not only in the Catholic world, and that he must be prepared to venture out, even at times into some strange byways, to discover the tools and methods and allies of his craft.
And one of the methods the Catholic writer needs to discover is how to enter and find community within the industries where contemporary stories are told. This is an enormous and pressing need, and it doesn’t help that in the last half-century or more Catholics have largely vacated the venues of both mass and highbrow entertainment. Take a stroll down Broadway and you’ll find two theaters, the Helen Hayes and the Walter Kerr, monuments to a once vibrant, now nearly invisible, Catholic presence in the American theater--the theater, which more than any art is designed to allow its audience to contemplate the religious bond of which Percy speaks. Catholic poet Dana Gioia has compared our current literary culture to “the present state of the old immigrant urban neighborhoods our grandfathers inhabited.” Where have all the Catholics gone? They’ve moved to the exurbs, where they consume the products of mass entertainment, grumble about its excesses, but generally leave the urban-based business of storytelling to those who are quite happy for Catholics to remain uninvolved.
Tell All the Truth But Tell It Slant
The most important and difficult part, of course, of reinhabiting the old neighborhood--that is, of regaining a presence in movie studios and production companies, on mainstream stages and publishing platforms--is to imagine stories that will, as Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” To a contemporary audience the straightforward presentation of a solidly Catholic subject will probably only antagonize. Engagement will better be achieved by moving toward the religious question slantwise. The Christian novelist, Percy remarks in this regard, must operate like Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus and use “every ounce of cunning, craft, and guile he can muster from the darker regions of his soul.” For Percy this means that “The fictional use of violence, shock, comedy, insult, the bizarre, are the everyday tools of his trade.” How to utilize these tools in particular stories is not the task of an essay.
For that, the Catholic writer must return to his writing desk and learn how to compose a new song.